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How “sickies” and presenteeism hurt employers


Baby it's cold outside

Cold and flu season is upon us again, which means employers should be planning for the inevitable round of absences. This time of the year presents many challenges for employers, so here are our practical tips for managing the winter months.

Cold and flu season is upon us again, which means employers should be planning for the inevitable round of absences. This time of the year presents many challenges for employers, so here are our practical tips for managing the winter months.


‘Workplace warriors’ and presenteeism

Workplace warriors are those employees with the mentality that they must show up for work no matter how sick they are feeling and that sick leave should only be taken in absolute emergencies (and even then, only with reluctance). This practice is now known as presenteeism – where employees are present at work when really they should be absent. Aside from the risk of spreading illness throughout the workplace, presenteeism has a real impact on productivity and recent reporting has put a figure on the financial cost too.

In a report released last month, the Centre for International Economics cited the estimated cost of presenteeism to the Australian economy as $34.1 billion dollars per annum, which is equivalent to a productivity loss of 2.6 per cent. Lost productivity comes in the form of employees taking longer to complete their work, having to re-do work not completed to an acceptable standard and having prolonged periods of underperformance due to longer recovery periods required when employees haven’t rested and recovered properly.


The ‘sickie’

On the flip side of presenteeism is the ‘sickie’ - where employees access their sick leave entitlement to take time off from work when they are not sick at all.

The ‘sickie’ is now more easily scrutinised as the result of the constant reporting phenomenon of social media where employees “sharing” from the beach, the cricket or a concert are more likely than not to be discovered by someone at work. This certainly warrants disciplinary action as the ‘sickie’ is a misuse of the sick leave benefit intended to support employees in the case of genuine illness.


The impact on the modern workplace

Both ‘workplace warriors’ and ‘sickie’ takers are bad for the modern workplace on several key levels:

  • Financial and productivity costs (as noted above).
  • Negative impact on workplace morale and values.
  • Spreading of illness throughout the workplace.
  • Creation of a culture of dishonesty & resentment in the workplace.
  • Destruction of trust, a fundamental feature of an employment relationship.


How to combat presenteeism and ‘sickies’

Both presenteeism and ‘sickies’ need to be discouraged and there are a number of strategies employers can use to manage the use and abuse of sick leave:

  • Have a clearly written Sick Leave Policy that is based on the NES (or other prevailing industrial instrument) that sets expectations and procedures. Consider including such things such as when evidence of illness (like a doctor’s certificate) will be required, what kinds of paperwork need to be completed to claim sick leave, what are the notification requirements, and what is the policy for taking sick leave before and after weekends or public holidays. Having a written policy and clear expectations will make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to attendance, health and wellness in the workplace.
  • Remind employees that sick leave accrues progressively and that by using all their sick leave for occasions where they aren’t sick might leave them in financial difficulty down the track if they do suffer some prolonged illness.
  • If employees show up sick, send them home to recover. Employers are best served when their employees are healthy and working at their optimum. Productivity is lost by workplace warriors who do a sub-par job because they’re sick and take longer to recover because they don’t get the rest they need. Employers should feel confident in their right to direct an employee to go home and rest where there are concerns that the employee won’t be able to adequately do their job and/or they pose a risk to the health of other employees.
  • Get in early and communicate expectations around sick leave to employees now, right at the beginning of cold and flu season. Educate employees on the costs of abusing sick leave or not taking it when they should. By doing either, employees are hurting their employer’s business and their work relationships.
  • Emphasise to employees that a Sick Leave Policy and expectations around taking sick leave are about showing respect, care, trust and honesty in the workplace.

Sick leave is a paid entitlement provided to employees to support them when they are genuinely ill – it should be used by employees when they are genuinely ill and not otherwise. Remember the best way to ensure a happy, healthy and productive workplace is for employers to consistently communicate this to their employees and enforce where necessary.


Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog, or from links on this website to any external website. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.


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